Electric cars race to the finish in the Formula E at Long Beach

Halfway through the all-new Formula E season, an international race of electric cars, and the stakes feel just as high as in a Formula 1 race, but these cars represent the future.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
4 min read

2015 Formula E Long Beach
In the new Formula E series, electric cars take the track in what could be the future of racing. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

LONG BEACH -- It's the sixth race of an all-new Formula series, an FIA-sponsored race of electric cars dubbed Formula E. In the five races so far, from Beijing to Buenos Aires, e.dams Renault team holds the season lead with 110 points, well ahead of next runner up Audi Sport ABT's 79 points.

This day's race in Long Beach, Calif., starts the second half of the season, race No. 6, followed by Monte Carlo and finally ending in London. After the race, the drivers will talk about how the track at Long Beach is the fastest in the series so far, a Grand Prix track which has seen Indycar and Nascar races. Similar to the Grand Prix circuit in Monaco, a set of downtown streets make up the Long Beach track. On weekdays, workers and vacationers will pilot these streets, but today 20 of the best drivers in the world will try and maintain their positions or change their fortunes in the Formula E series.

All the trappings of an International Formula series race are here. We have teams and drivers from all over the world. Each team has a crew of racing technicians who will fix and tweak and maintain the cars. At the end of the day, three drivers will stand on the podium, holding high trophies and spraying champagne over the crowd.

Formula E electric cars race in Long Beach (pictures)

See all photos

But the purist might scoff at Formula E, pointing out that the race will only take an hour, and that drivers get to jump into a completely fresh car halfway through. The cars only have a top speed of 140 mph, with motor output limited to 202.5 horsepower. Then there's FanBoost, a unique feature of Formula E where the three drivers who get the most social media love, #FanBoost, get an additional 40.5 horsepower they can apply for 5 seconds during the race.

All that may make Formula E seem like a lesser event than other Formula races.

But standing near the track as the cars flash by, and you can feel the momentum, the thundering power as they race down a straight. When the drivers brake before a turn, the whine of the motors pop in a lowering bass as the drivers work the five-speed transmission in their cars. Starting out on the grid, torque from the drive motor spins the tires free from the pavement when the drivers accelerate. And in the turns, each driver must judge what line he will take and how fast he can get through it while keeping off the wall.

After the race, China Racing's driver Nelson Piquet pointed out some of the challenges of driving Formula E. Along with handling the turns, jockeying for position and trying not to be overtaken, the drivers must also watch the temperature and charge levels from their battery packs. Audi Sport ABT driver Lucas di Grassi had experienced a fire emanating from his car's auxiliary battery pack in a previous race.

For the first season of Formula E, teams are restricted to using the same type of car, the Spark SRT_01e, an open-wheel single-seater made by Renault and a company called Spark. This car is similar in aerodynamics and construction engineering to Formula 1 cars, but instead of a gasoline engine, it makes use of a pure electric drivetrain. Formula E rules limit drivers to using only 56 kilowatt-hours of electricity during the race, not counting what might be gained by regenerative braking. For successive seasons, Formula E plans on creating opportunities for teams to tune their cars, which in turn could fuel technology advances in battery and motor technology, but for now Formula E is a single spec race.

So it comes down to the skill of the drivers.

Each lap of the 1.32-mile Long Beach course takes just under a minute to complete. At the end of the starting straight, a chicane makes up turn 1 and turn 2. Another straight follows, ending in turn 3, a hard right. Another straight up Pine Street, and another hard right leading to the long back straight where the drivers can maximize their speed. Turn 5 is a hard right, turn 6 is a sweeper, then drivers are thrown a hairpin at turn 7, and it's back to the main straight.

After grabbing an early lead, Nelson Piquet would come out the winner of the 39-lap Formula E Long Beach race, followed by Andretti driver Jean-Eric Vergne in second and Lucas di Grassi in third. However, point totals would put di Grassi in overall lead for the season with 75, followed by Piquet with 74.

2015 Formula E Long Beach
Nelson Piquet holds the first-place trophy for the sixth race in the first Formula E series. Wayne Cunningham/CNET